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Beauty and the Beast
Raymonda Act III
'Still Life' at the Penguin Café
The Two Pigeons
The Dance House
Whenever one thinks of music for weddings, there's one piece that immediately springs to mind - Mendelssohn's famous wedding march, the scourge of church organists the world over! That particular piece started life as part of the incidental music for orchestra that Mendelssohn wrote for an 1842 production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The music survives today as a concert suite.
When the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth came around in 1964, Frederick Ashton spoke to John Lanchbery about the possibility of creating a piece of music for a ballet based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, using Mendelssohn's music. It was to appear as part of a Shakespeare triple bill featuring a new piece by MacMillan, Images of Love, and a revival of Robert Helpmann's Hamlet. Lanchbery set to work and arranged a 50-minute score to which Ashton choreographed his pared-down version of the story.
Based on one of Shakespeare's most successful comedies, with a notoriously complicated plot, Ashton's ballet simplifies things by concentrating on the fairies and the four lovers. The events in Athens and the play within the play are gone. After the overture (which, separately from the rest of the score, Mendelssohn wrote when he was only 16!) the ballet opens in the woods outside Athens with a quarrel between Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies. Oberon wants Titania's changeling boy to be his page, but she refuses. Oberon's decision to get his own back sets in motion the somewhat ridiculous, though highly entertaining tale of misused potions, lovers falling for the wrong partners and the fairy queen falling in love with a donkey!
Lanchbery did not stick exactly with the music as Mendelssohn wrote it. Instead he moulded it to fit Ashton's needs. For example the 'Nocturne', which Mendelssohn used to link two of the lovers' scenes, becomes Oberon and Titania's final reconciliatory pas de deux; the 'Dance of the Clowns', which Mendelssohn associated with the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, Lanchbery associates with Bottom, who, changed into an ass, is astounded to find the beautiful Titania smitten with him. The famous 'Wedding March' occurs more than once, from the point when the lovers wake up and are finally in love with the right people!
The ballet is very much a comedy, but, despite this, makes great demands on the dancers' technique and stamina. Oberon dominates, appearing in all but two episodes and effectively replacing the more traditional ballerina in the lead role. Many of his jumps and turns are off-balance and his arabesques and extensions are higher than usual for a man. Puck almost always bounds on stage, leaping running and sliding, sometimes too far in his enthusiasm, so he has to run back to centre-stage.
The whole piece manages to combine an almost Victorian sense of decorum with gentle, heart-warming humour and, on occasion, some ferociously difficult choreography. However, as might be expected from the choreographic and musical team who created La Fille mal gardée and The Two Pigeons, it is a delight and ideal for all ages.
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